Sometimes I had good days, sometimes I have bad days, sometimes I have days that are madder than Mad Jack McMad of the clan McMad. Today was one of the mad days. It all started at 2am when my bus pulled over at the side of the road and the driver’s mate gesticulated for me to get off. Are we in Beijing already? We’re four hours early…
Sleepy-eyed and completely not with it, I got off (hoping I had grabbed all my stuff) and was herded onto another bus. You see, my bus wasn’t full enough to justify going all the way to Beijing, so I was to get on another bus that was a little more full. Well, make that TOTALLY FULL. Which meant that for the next hour while all around me slept the sleep of angels in their little Chinese bunk beds, I was unhappily STANDING IN THE GODDAMN AISLE. When it became abundantly clear that there was no way out of this situation, I took the executive decision to make an arse of myself and demand my money back. So I barged my way to the front of the bus and started shouting at the driver, at which point (possibly because the Chinese HATE to ‘lose face’) the driver’s mate clambered down from his bunk and offered me his bed.
I didn’t need to be offered twice. I snapped up the bed and fell fast asleep. Then at 5.30am the driver’s mate decided that he wanted to have a conversation with somebody at the very back of the bus (or on the roof, I don’t know) and as the Chinese are blessed with the highest toleration of noise this side of a howler monkey, the ensuing racket woke me up. Convinced that there was either a fire or we had arrived, I put my socks on and got ready to disembark. Oh yeah: there’s the Beijing West train station, I know where I am.
Some people got off the bus, so I thrust my shoes onto my feet and headed for the door, at which point the driver’s mate pushed me physically back onboard. WTF? I wasn’t in the mood for this, not after last night’s shenanigans. I pushed him back and told him in no uncertain terms that I was getting off the bus. Bizarrely, the driver then told me that I had to pay to get off the bus here. How much? 10 Yuan (that’s about a quid).
I took a 10 yuan note from my wallet, threw it on the floor and marched off the bus. I was doubly pissed off because I had decided that I really liked Chinese buses as well. Now I didn’t like them so much, but until somebody else puts beds on buses then I’m afraid they’re going to remain the best, even if they suffer from occasional Greyhound syndrome.
Anyway, it was now 6am and the day was yet young. The bus to Qingdao, the coastal port from which I could get the ferry to Korea, would be leaving Beijing sometime in the evening (I hoped) and so I had a day to kill, and I had a promise to keep with an old friend…
The Great Wall of China is a masterpiece of human endeavour. Even if it never really worked (it didn’t keep Genghis out) it still stands out as an artistic and engineering triumph, winding its way in now broken sections from the Jade Gate in the far West all the way to North Korea in the East. The Lonely Planet recommended against visiting the bit of the wall in Badaling (which is where I visited) on the grounds that it’s full of tourists. Silly pretentious Lonely Planet, I AM a tourist. Lemon. What’s with people wanting places all to themselves anyway? Are all the girls in bikinis spoiling your beach? Are all the people having a good time in your living room ruining your party? If all the people in the world camped out in your back garden, would you write and tell the king?
Or would you grab a tent and join ’em?
Tell you what, though, I wish other people would learn to take a photograph. When I throw you my camera, DON’T PUT MY HEAD IN THE LOWER MIDDLE OF THE GODDAMN PICTURE!! I’m sure the sky is lovely and one day I might take a picture of it myself, but for the love of God: HEADS, UPPER THIRD OF PICTURE, PLEASE. ALWAYS.
Anyway, the crowds were an added bit of entertainment and it was nice to be around lots of people who were enjoying themselves. The wall was great, although it was a stinking hot day and with my backpack and my laptop/camcorder etc. to carry, boy it was a killer climbing up that hill.
In a bit I had to climb down, and the fact that I desperately need a new pair of shoes became painfully obvious as the shiny polished stones were like an ice rink: one that is disturbingly vertical. Anyone who has braved Dubrovnik in Croatia in high heels (and who hasn’t?!) will know exactly what I’m talking about. I slid all the way down, clinging onto the handrail for dear life.
Anyway, enough walling for one day, I headed back to Beijing to meet with Carl and pick up my gear that he had kindly let me leave at his. After a (much needed) shower I was raring to go to the Forbidden City and see Tiananmen Square for myself. Carl was up for it, so we took the metro down to the very middle – figuratively and geographically – of Beijing. Tiananmen was a little meh; too big, too surrounded by yawn and, well let’s just say it – it looked a little like a carpark.
The Forbidden City, on the other hand, was exceptionally groovy from the outside and, like St Peter’s Basilica and Samarkand, I made the executive decision to save the inside for another day: to leave some more stones unturned. Climbing the Great Wall was enough for one day. Beijing: I like you. I’ll be back.
Everybody knows that the best place to get travel information is at a backpackers. Luckily for me, Carl had been staying at a nearby hostel before he moved into his current flat. Like the Major in Fawlty Towers. So he knew the staff pretty well and we were their to pick their brains about bus times to Qingdao. Happily, there was a bus leaving at 7.30pm, which was the time I was hoping the bus would leave. Carl and I celebrated with the biggest glass of beer you have EVER seen. It was so big it had its own tap. And a tube of ice in the middle to keep it cool (the Chinese man, they think of EVERYTHING!).
Unfortunately, it was so big it took us an hour to drink the damn thing and by then it was looking a little late for me to get to the bus in time, considering I still had to go back to Carl’s, pack my bags up and head halfway across town. But we gave it a red hot go.
I said goodbye to Carl on the steps of the Dongzhimen Station (I wonder if Chinese people find ‘Dong’ and ‘Wang’ as hilarious as I do – then again, nobody thinks the ‘turd’ in Saturday is even remotely funny except for me and the less said about Scunthorpe the better). Carl’s a good egg, and if you’re ever in need of a couch in Beijing, I couldn’t recommend a more generous host. Cheers man!
So it was a heart-pounding RACE to the bus station. It would have been good to have an hour to make the journey. As it was, I had half an hour. The first metro line train came straight away, which was great, however the second train I had to transfer onto was a) miles of winding tunnels away and b) just pulling out of the station when I got there.
So I had to wait for the next one. But even when I had got to the destination station, the bus station was still a while away. It was 7.25 and things were not looking good. I needed a taxi and none were stopping. At 7.33 I arrived at the bus station, but the driver dropped me on the other side of a massive dual carriageway which meant I had to RUN up the stairs (with all my bags which are now collectively weighing a TON), cross the bridge and come down the other side. And then…
Where the HELL is the bus station?? One thing about China that’s worth worrying about: hardly anybody speaks English. Yes, hurray for the Chinese they are just as completely inept at learning other languages as I am. Which is great. If you’re Chinese.
I asked a few passers-by, but to actually get the one English professor in the whole of China who actually understands the words ‘Bus Station’ was going to be the statistical equivalent of winning the Lotto. Without actually buying a ticket.
I had two choices: left or right. I went left. Within 50 yards there was a narrow driveway. A coach was entering it. I ran after the coach down the dark and forbidden driveway of doom. And there it was: the bus station, inexplicably hidden from the outside world by a bunch of noodle shops. I ran inside. The place was empty. The lights were off.
There were two women at a small counter by coach bay door number 16 who were packing up for the night. Like the previous two nights I ran towards the women shouting the name of my destination. One women shook her head. “Tomorrow”.
Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!! I said, doing my best Vader and banging my head on the counter.
The women then started talking to her friend in Chinese. They looked at me, saw the despair, the longing, the joy they knew that only they could bring with those three magic words…
“Come with me…”
A broad smile cracked across my face. I had beaten the system. Again. Hurray for China, man, THREE CHEERS, BRAVO. These guys know something that the less mentally agile denizens of Planet Earth do not: rules are made to be bent. I was put on a bus that was leaving that very moment, but before I had even managed to sit down I was put on another bus which I assumed was the bus to Qingdao, but wasn’t – it was the bus that was taking me to the bus to Qingdao. I assume that they were taking the same route out of town and that they called ahead to ask the Qingdao bus to wait for me.
Anyway, one way or the other, I was soon curled up on my amazing Chinese bus bed dreaming my way to Qingdao and beyond.